Friday, August 03, 2007

Planners Warned on Blight Proof

Plainfield’s ambitious redevelopment plans may need rethinking since a recent spate of challenges to the taking of land by eminent domain.

The city has more than a dozen schemes in the works, mostly all based on “transit-oriented development” with hubs at the Netherwood and North Avenue train stations and two transit hubs at Grant and Clinton avenues.

In a conference Thursday prior to the Planning Board meeting in City Hall Library, a group including attorneys, planners and city officials considered options in light of the challenges. Options now may include offering developers incentives to choose the Queen City for projects. The closed meeting preceded the regularly scheduled Planning Board meeting at 8 p.m. in City Hall Library.

“We’re really treading on new ground,” Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson said in the public meeting.

The issue arose just as the board was considering an expansion of the North Avenue redevelopment area. The proposal was to add most of the PNC Bank block as well as a city-owned parking lot on East Second Street and nearby buildings to the North Avenue plan. Properties had to meet one or more of eight criteria for being in need of redevelopment. Consultant George Stevenson had found some buildings in need of redevelopment because of cracks or even because they were not tall enough to represent optimal use.

But as Stevenson presented a revised needs study last month, Planning Board attorney Michele Donato warned the board that proofs of blight had to be substantial enough to stand up in court. In Paulsboro, Belmar and Newark, blight designations were thrown out and Public Advocate Ronald Chen has called for strict adherence to redevelopment criteria.

Stevenson had attempted to demonstrate blight in one instance by citing a mattress at the rear of one building, saying he saw a vagrant lying on it. But Planning Board members said that was merely a code enforcement issue, not an example of blight. Click here for the previous story.

On Thursday, Robertson said the city may need another approach to redevelopment, such as incentives to developers. He said the Netherwood study, which covers nearly 100 properties, may have to be revisited to see “what parts under the new restraints are even eligible” to be declared blighted.

The board will continue to look into the issue with Donato’s help. Attorneys for the city and the Union County Improvement Authority, among others involved in redevelopment, will meet to come up with a “consensus methodology,” Donato said.

Eminent domain was once used just for public improvements such as roads and schools. But more recently, its use for redevelopment has met rising resistance from citizens who do not want to see beloved landmarks swept aside in a push for greater tax revenues.

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who attended the closed meeting, called it “excellent” and “educational.”

The city’s first project under the mayor’s administration, Dornoch Holdings’s 63 condos combined with a new senior center, is being funded privately and did not go through the redevelopment process. The city turned over the land to Dornoch for $1 and developer Glen Fishman is financing the $15 million project, building the new senior center at no cost to the city. Dornoch was given conditional designation to do the project in August 2006 and broke ground last month. Officials last night said those in the closed meeting called the process the fastest in New Jersey. Dornoch did not seek any tax concessions and construction is slated to be completed by early 2008.
--Bernice Paglia


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